Beyond the warped ingenuity of these Heath Robinson schemes to force ‘free’ competition to happen in closely controlled circumstances, such interest as the White Paper possesses may lie chiefly in its providing a handy compendium of current officialese, a sottisier of econobabble. One of the most revealing features of its prose is the way the tense that might be called the mission-statement present is used to disguise implausible non sequiturs as universally acknowledged general truths. Here is one mantra, repeated in similar terms at several points: ‘Putting financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful.’ Part of the brilliance of the semantic reversals at the heart of such Newspeak lies in the simple transposition of negative to positive. After all, ‘putting financial power into the hands of learners’ means ‘making them pay for something they used to get as of right’. So forcing you to pay for something enhances your power. And then the empty, relationship-counselling cadence of the assertion that this ‘makes student choice meaningful’. Translation: ‘If you choose something because you care about it and hope it will extend your human capacities it will have no significance for you, but if you are paying for it then you will scratch people’s eyes out to get what you’re entitled to.’ No paying, no meaning. After all, why else would anyone do anything?
Not that practical things are unimportant or students’ views irrelevant or future employment an unworthy consideration: suggesting that critics of the proposals despise such things, as David Willetts did when discussing my LRB piece on the Browne Report (4 November 2010) in a speech at the British Academy, is just a way of setting up easily knocked-down straw opponents. It is, rather, that the model of the student as consumer is inimical to the purposes of education. The paradox of real learning is that you don’t get what you ‘want’ – and you certainly can’t buy it. The really vital aspects of the experience of studying something (a condition very different from ‘the student experience’) are bafflement and effort. Hacking your way through the jungle of unintelligibility to a few small clearings of partial intelligibility is a demanding and not always enjoyable process. It isn’t much like wallowing in fluffy towels. And it helps if you trust your guides rather than assuming they will skimp on the job unless they’re kept up to the mark by constant monitoring of their performance indicators.
Stefan Collini in the LRB, the rest here.